The PCC and why self-regulation does not work

The recent submissions made by myself and others to the governance review of the Press Complaints Commission are now available to view on the PCC website. It is interesting to note the relatively small amounts of public submissions to what was an important opportunity for the public to inform the PCC of any concerns. Perhaps the paucity of submissions demonstrates the poor public awareness of the PCC, and perhaps indicates a certain level of cynicism as to whether a submission would make any difference to such a powerless and ineffectual organisation.

Indeed, the submissions themselves are telling. Take, for example, the submission from the Society of editors [pdf]. In their submission the Society basically argue that they appreciate the PCC have to keep up the appearance of being a organisation responsive to change, they insist that ‘it must not change fundementally’. Considering the PCC has fundamental problems as a regulator, this seems like the Society of Editors want the PCC to remain fundamentally ineffective.

Certainly their arguments follow those put forward by Paul Dacre – the man who insists that self-regulation works through the general decency of editors and the shame that they feel if they are caught breaking the code:

“It is a matter of huge shame if an editor has an adjudication against him; it is a matter of shame for him and his paper. That is why self-regulation is the most potent form of regulation, and we buy into it. We do not want to be shamed.”

Considering that Paul Dacre is editor of the most complained about newspaper in the UK, I think we can all see that ‘shame’ is not an effective regulatory force. However, this does not stop Dacre and the Society of Editors from implying that journalists are their own fiercest critics:

There is no fiercer critic of a journalist than another journalist. The code is part of editors’ and journalists’ contracts of employment. There can be no more powerful final sanction than the loss of livelihood.

Considering that Paul Dacre has an annual salary of £1.13m (a salary that has been criticised by corporate governance watchdogs) and is editor of the most complained about newspaper, it seems that no-one is actually willing to impose economic sanctions, even if such sanctions are written into their contract of employment. Certainly the PCC is not the regulator to impose fines against individuals, and I’m not sure members of the public consider an eventual, forced apology after several months really constitutes the ‘free and instant justice’ that Paul Dacre actually states the PCC provides.

The Society of Editors submission demonstrates that self-regulation of the press with never be effective as long as editors and journalists have such an uncritical and frankly deluded opinion of the industry that they work in. The submission in simple terms argues that editors and journalists alike all obey the code out of professional pride, and that fundamental changes to the PCC must not happen. Furthermore, they also argue that:

It should respond to genuine complaints from the public rather than from those who may hold particular subjective views about the role and behaviour of the press generally or any part of it

I imagine they would consider my views on the ‘role and behaviour of the press’ to be subjective, when in reality they just reflect the fact that I spend a lot of my time sifting through the lies, distortions and outright hatred printed as a matter of course by the press on a daily basis. I think I have every reason to have formed strong views on the behaviour of the press, the Society of Editors seem to argue that I should be ignored for being ‘subjective’.

However, where is the real subjective analysis coming from? Surely, given the completely unrealistic views held by Paul Dacre and the Society of Editors, the real subjectivity problem is being caused by the role of self-regulation? If Paul Dacre really believes that the shame of doing wrong is the most powerful form of self-regulation, then clearly an independent regulator must be created.

Clearly, if the Society of Editors genuinely believes that journalists are the fiercest critics of other journalists – yet we face a deafening silence in the majority of all media outlets when any newspaper of journalist is found guilty of any journalistic misdemeanor – then they are not fit to play any part in the governance review or the self-regulation process.

The submission from MediaWise makes much more pertinent arguments for change, based on evidence, rather than the dishonest assumption that self-regulation is working wonderfully thanks to shame and self-aware criticism. It points out that it is no longer acceptable ‘At every new crisis of confidence about press misbehaviour the public are assured ad nauseam about editors’ commitment to self-regulation and the Code of Practice’, when the public can clearly see that editors have no commitment to the code of practice. If they did, then the constant misbehaviour would not happen.

MediaWise also points out that the desire for ‘cheap headlines and sensational claims’ (often from the PR industry) ‘take precedence over well-researched and properly verified stories. They refer to examples such as Madeleine McCann, Max Mosley, MMR, avian flu and swine flu to demonstrate how the press constantly reports without any reference to fact or truth. All of this under the careful watch of journalists who supposedly face fierce criticism and economic sanctions and editors who adhere to the code as a matter of moralistic principle.

It also points out that the line between news content and editorial content has become dangerously blurred, and that the PCC again demonstrated its complete failure as a regulatory body by ruling that: ‘a headline should be regarded as a comment and so not subject to the Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Editors’ Code’. How can an effective regulatory body argue that headlines have no need to be accurate? As a result of this ruling the Express headline: ‘Bombers are all spongeing asylum-seekers’, was ruled as being perfectly acceptable.

The PCC does not work. As long as editors and journalists continue to think that their newspapers are doing a great job of self-regulation and abiding by the principles and spirit of the code, then the PCC will never work. If editors like Paul Dacre are allowed to make nonsensical statements such as refuting the claim that the Daily Mail engages in ‘churnalism’ (the act of rehashing or even publishing in full press releases or even wire copy without any fact checking or any journalistic input whatsoever), then the PCC will never work.

I have no faith in the PCC becoming an effective regulatory body in the foreseeable future, which is why I am putting together a new website aimed at amalgamating the huge amount of blog articles written each day on the national media – whether it be TV, radio, newspapers or online news sources. The aim of the website is to give more prominence to the lies and distortions of our unregulated media. It will try to publish articles from some of the prominent media bloggers, as well as encouraging any blogger who has written something about the media to submit their content as well.

In order to make the site work we will need editors to trawl and check content, writers prepared to submit work (already TabloidWatch has agreed to submit some content that may be outside the remit of watching Tabloids) and above all we need a name for it. I hope that the few readers who have made it this far can add some suggestions for the project, whether it be name function or a small commitment to lend your support to the project.

My hope is to create a site that isn’t as easy to ignore as individual bloggers, to create a site that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The PCC does not work, let us provide a website that demonstrates just how badly self-regulation of the press has let us all down.

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